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Va. Road Woes: Pay Or Stay Stuck In Traffic

Virginia Del. Bob Marshall, the Republican from Prince William County who is one of the last great crusaders in the General Assembly, follows his conscience, no matter how unpopular or inconvenient the results. Whether he's seeking to restrict abortion in any possible way or trying to restrict development that might damage the environment, he's fine with ticking off left or right. In fact, he relishes the idea.

So it came as no surprise that it was Marshall who tossed a pipe bomb into the delicate structure that housed Virginia's multi-billion dollar transportation compromise. And when he won a total victory in the Virginia Supreme Court last week, his reaction was classic Marshall: "I told you so."

Where other politicians might try to calm their colleagues or craft a compromise, Marshall instead was gleeful over the unanimous declaration by the state's high court that last year's transportation plan, designed to raise $1.1 billion a year for roads and rails while allowing legislators to pretend that they hadn't raised taxes, was now "null and void."

The legislature and Gov. Tim Kaine had created regional transportation authorities and charged them with raising fees and taxes to raise the money to ease congestion in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Rather than taking the straightforward, honest path of raising either the gas tax or the sales tax, the politicians had come up with a crazy-quilt of borrowing, local levies and the ill-fated abuser fees, all of which Sen. Ken Stolle, a Virginia Beach Republican, came to call "too cute."

But Stolle said that only after the publication Friday of a 23-page opinion by Justice Bernard Goodwyn--a Kaine appointee--who concluded that the legislature had circumvented Virginia's constitutional bar against tax increases coming from anyone other than the people's directly elected representatives.

"The General Assembly may not delegate its taxing power to a non-elected body," Goodwyn wrote. The Constitution clearly states that "all men . . . cannot be taxed . . . without their own consent, or that of their representatives duly elected."

The easy solution now is for legislators to come back in a special session this spring and write new law reinventing the regional transportation authorities, but with a new flow of money, this time from newly-imposed state taxes and fees.

But when it comes to politics and taxes, nothing is easy. While state senators in the past few days have embraced the idea of raising taxes to pay for new roads--a 5-cent per gallon hike in the 17.5-cent gas tax is the most oft-cited proposal--the Republican-controlled House remains wedded to the fantasy that you can make billions in improvements in the state's road system without raising taxes to pay for the new spending.

The Supreme Court had little patience for the legislature's games in its opinion. "When the primary purpose of an enactment is to raise revenue, the enactment will be considered a tax, regardless of the name attached to the act," the court wrote. In other words, you can call it something different or try to make it seem as if someone else is ordering the tax, but a tax is a tax is a tax.

But the blame for this mess does not rest solely on House Republicans. While Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, the Fairfax Democrat, was outspoken from the get-go about the fact that last year's compromise was unconstitutional, many Democrats happily bought into the fantasy. Kaine had to know the compromise was unlikely to pass muster with the courts, yet he failed to veto the deal.

The gas tax hasn't gone up since 1986. And given the soaring price of gas--and the minimal impact that has had on usage--who can possibly claim that a nickel per gallon would be noticed by anyone?

But nothing's that simple. Watch for weeks of wrangling and gamesmanship, all designed to concoct some way once again to raise the money without appearing to raise the money.

Meanwhile, Marshall--who is mounting a rearguard challenge to former Gov. Jim Gilmore for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate this year--has moved on to his next crusade. He wants the taxes and fees collected by Northern Virginia's transportation authority since they went into effect Jan. 1 to be paid back to the citizens. "They stole money from us," Marshall said. "They gotta pay that back."

No one has figured out how to refund the taxes collected on car repairs and rentals, but when they do, that will be Bob Marshall's cackle you hear in the distance. Meanwhile, enjoy the traffic.

By Marc Fisher |  March 4, 2008; 7:42 AM ET
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Wow, a politician who votes and acts on what he feels is right and not based on political party or the media. Even more surprising is that the laws still mean something in Virginia. You can't have non elected officials dictating tax collections. It's that simple.

Posted by: steve | March 4, 2008 8:18 AM

I would notice a tax increase of a nickel a gallon.

Posted by: I would notice | March 4, 2008 8:33 AM

I've been enjoying the traffic in NOVA since 1981. I've also been sending my tax money to Richmond every year with little return on investment for local projects.

The VA Supreme Court made the right decision. We elected our representatives to go to Richmond and do the difficult task of creating and passing a budget. One that fairly addresses the needs of all areas of Virginia. That includes making unpopular decisions on taxes. Had the regional taxing authorities been allowed to exist, it would have set a precedent and there would be no end to these extra legal tax authorities.

NOVA generates a significant volume of tax revenue for Richmond. Our elected representatives are required to bring some of it back this way. However, it has been said time and time again that the mean rural Republicans don't care about NOVA. My observation is that the Democrats we in NOVA send to Richmond are just too weak to compete.

The place for budget decisions is in the State Legislature. If we don't get the results we would like then it's time to change representation, not create more bureaucracy and another local fiefdom.

Posted by: Nevis | March 4, 2008 8:37 AM

I'm cackling, too, as I subtract 10.00 from our car registration due this month. I will take special delight in requesting refunds for my car inspection and work done last week (a grand total of 20 in refunds, but every buck counts).

Everyone knew the gravy train of revenue resulting from high housing prices/property taxes would end some day. Instead of using tax revenue wisely, our local officials chose to spend everything they could. Now that leaner times are here, their impulse is to raise taxes in any way they can, whether by slapping new fees on services or by jiggering with property appraisals.

Posted by: ViennaDad | March 4, 2008 8:40 AM

I was hoping that by some stretch of the imagination this plan would not be found unconstitutional. Oh well, back to begging the rest of the state to help us out, even though we foot more than our fair share of the state tax bill.

Posted by: eric | March 4, 2008 8:54 AM

Folks, it is a simple game. Nothing in life is free. Either the state redirects funds to pay for new roads (i.e. cut other programs like education or environment), or we increase taxes. Own up to the reality of the situation and freakin' get it done. We are already light years behind other progressive states when it comes to infrastructure...any more dawdling and businesses will begin to re-evaluate if this area makes sense and walk away, taking their tax revenue with them.

BTW, why has no one considered tolling parts of our interstate system as other states have done? How could you create a more equitable solution to pay for roads than to tax road users?

Posted by: Mc2guy | March 4, 2008 8:56 AM

Enough with the easy solution of always raising taxes. A penny here a penny there and all of a sudden you are looking at real money, mine, yours, and your neighbors. We need to take a hard look at priorities and how we spend, and end pet projects of people pandering for re-election. Where did Fairfax County spend my 150% increase in real estate taxes from the last 8 years? What happened to the transportation trust fund. If my family does not have it, I don't go to my boss and expect a raise. We cut spending. Government should make the hard choices and do the same.

Posted by: Ace | March 4, 2008 9:07 AM

So we go in circles, making minimum progress with maximum effort.

Maybe once employers and employees start fleeing NoVA and its horrific traffic in droves Richmond will realize that their ATM is out of business.

Posted by: Time to move | March 4, 2008 9:14 AM

I remember that Jerry Kilgore advocated regional taxing authorities when he ran for governor and when I asked about it, his campaing told me they would have to be elected by the voters of each region in order to be legal but that it would at least allow each region to set their own priorities and raise their own revenues based on the support of the VOTERS in the region. Aren't we all glad Northern virginia rejected that hick in favor of Tim Kaine? Isn't it so much fun going back to the drawing board on Dullus Rail and transportation funding because our governor is sooooo much smarter than the Federal Transit Administration and knows the Va. constitution soooo well? Thank you Wapo and Nova for your kneejerk support of anyone opposed to Rova.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | March 4, 2008 9:25 AM

Someday poiliticians in Virginia may realize that making investments in public infrastructure costs money, and it is only going to come from taxing state residents.

Minnesota for example just passed a 6.6 Billion transportation infrastructure bill to pay for new roads, replace old bridges, new transit projects (bus rapid transit and rail) over 10 years. Other states are following suit. At some point if you want to move forward you need leaders who are willing to articulate a plan appropriate to that state for making investments in shared infrastructures.

The fact that Virginia relies on a gas tax that was last updated in 1986, shows a dereliction of collective responsibility in elected government. Whatever .05 cents got you in 1986 in terms of purchasing power, it gets you much closer to zero today.

Building roads, highways, bridges, and transit is not cheap. There is an entire developing world that is building these infrastructures today which increases the costs of materials, and people who know how to design, and construct these systems.

There is of course the alternative of status quo, don't build anything, let more vehicle miles be traveled on existing infrastructure, increasing delays, pollution, and costs to the economy. If this is an acceptable alternative for Virginia then so be it.

Posted by: You get what you pay for | March 4, 2008 10:08 AM

i like pie

Posted by: bob | March 4, 2008 10:09 AM

In Virginia -- the State Government is responsible for building roads and maintainence, unlike most other states. Patricia Phillips identified 3 choices the General Assembly has to fund roads 1) raise the gas tax 20 cents per gallon 2) raise the sales tax 1 cent or 3) reprioritize less than 3% of the state buget to spend an extra 1 billion a year to build and fix roads. I agree with Patricia that out of $37 billion budget, the least impactful on the economy, commuters and families will be to repriotize the budget.

Posted by: tired commuter | March 4, 2008 10:26 AM

Fisher doesn't get it. Neither do the VA politicians, and neither do these commenters, so far.

What is the problem at the root of all this?

Traffic jams, which are definitively caused by failing to pass enough vehicles over our existing roads fast enough to prevent gridlock. The math is simple - average speed times capacity.

The only thing that Fisher or anyone else in the media is looking at is increasing capacity. Increasing speeds has been totally left out of the discussion - like it doesn't even exist as a possibility.

For example, Fisher says

"The gas tax hasn't gone up since 1986."

Yes, but the oh-so-progressive Fisher neglects to note that the speed limit ranges have not increased since the 1950's. Think about that one for a minute - speed limits haven't been materially adjusted since a time when there was no disc brakes, no air bags, no crumple zones - not even radial tires.

The cars can go faster. We can drive faster. Where's the progress?

So, demanding, as some commenters have, to just "get it done" (fund road improvements)is no solution, when half of the problem itself has never been addressed.

The problem in practical terms is that, given our current paradigm of "speed kills, so slow down at all costs," people have no incentive to get out of the way of others, so they simply spread out all over the new lanes that have (hopefully) been created by the new expenditures, and traffic flow only improves marginally.

This is why governments get so little decongestion bang for their transportation buck.

Fisher just assumes that the whole thing is about money, and that we have plenty.

"And given the soaring price of gas--and the minimal impact that has had on usage--who can possibly claim that a nickel per gallon would be noticed by anyone?"

According to Fisher, flows of money are easy...

"The easy solution now is for legislators to...write new law reinventing the regional transportation authorities, but with a new flow of money...from newly-imposed state taxes and fees.

but getting enough money, apparently, never is...

"But when it comes to politics and taxes, nothing is easy."

Yeah right. It's too damn easy.

Fisher closes with this:

"enjoy the traffic."

As if the traffic problems are solely due to not spending enough. His thinking is old, failed, textbook statism. If you want to improve traffic flows, you have to look beyond just spending money, and start recognizing the limitations of our current fiscal and regulatory paradigm of traffic policy.

We have to get away from all these cameras and violations, and get back to basics.

Rule one - don't hit anything, and if you do, pay for damages.

Rule two - stay out of other people's way and do not block traffic.

Posted by: Tom deSabla | March 4, 2008 10:27 AM

The previous commenter proposes increasing speed on our roads, yea we want people go 75 mph on the feeder roads that intersect with I-66.

Excuse me but there is the more important issue of safety. The relationship between speed and safety has been well studied. Indeed there are some sections of the interstate in this country where the speed limit is 75mph.

The issue is not speed, but volume overwhelming capacity, and where the capacity exists relative to our towns and places of work that we travel to and from.

Land use planning and transportation planning have never been strongly correlated in Virgnia, thus allowing developers to build pretty much wherever they wanted because it was there property that they bought and without much planning relative to roads or transit.

Many places in the country are now tightly integrating land use planning with transportation. It will not solve the problems overnight, but it is the right policy for government to follow, along with sufficient public investment.

To think that you can solve this problem by increasing speed is naive.

Posted by: Um Safety | March 4, 2008 10:45 AM

Major Interstate construction projects recently completed in the Norther Virginia, Hampton Roads and SW Virginia areas. These projects were funded with these so called "Transportation Authorities" and "Abusive Taxes". Now that these massive projects are completed, doesn't Virginia have excess revenues to redirect into new road projects or are they wasting our hard earned money?

Posted by: Tim | March 4, 2008 10:48 AM

Correction to my previous post:

Major Interstate construction projects recently completed in the Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and SW Virginia areas. These projects received No funding from these so called "Transportation Authorities" and "Abusive Taxes". Now that these massive projects are completed, doesn't Virginia have excess revenues to redirect into new road projects or are they wasting our hard earned money?

Posted by: Tim | March 4, 2008 10:56 AM

"Pay Or Stay Stuck In Traffic"

I have been Paying (overtaxed) and Stuck in Traffic for Decades. Does anyone really believe that Paying more Taxes on top of the same Taxes is going to prevent anyone from being Stuck in Traffic?

Posted by: Tax Payer | March 4, 2008 11:03 AM

It's really no wonder that the VA government thinks it can increase spending for transportation and infrastructure without raising taxes. The federal government's been doing it for seven years, and for eight years before that under Reagan. It's Republican Math. The GOP complains a lot about tax-and-spend Democrats; I worry more about borrow-and-spend Republicans. I'm glad I live in MD.

Posted by: Mel | March 4, 2008 11:11 AM

I just paid the tax to renew my registration last month. If the law-breakers can get their abusive driver fees refunded, then for damn sure I want my money back, and soon.

Posted by: arlington | March 4, 2008 11:13 AM

RE: "Wow, a politician who votes and acts on what he feels is right and not based on political party or the media"

Before we applaud that approach unconditionally, let's look at the mess President Bush's "I'm the decider" attitude has brought us.

I happen to agree with Bob Marshall, but because he was stubborn about the rule of law, not soley because he was stubborn.

Posted by: SD | March 4, 2008 12:08 PM

If this game of chicken continues in Richmond and nothing is done about improving transportation, in a few years secession talk from northern Virginians will become prominent. Simply put, we've had enough.

Posted by: Vincent | March 4, 2008 12:34 PM

" in a few years secession talk from northern Virginians will become prominent."

Unfortunately, it is against the U.S. Constitution for any part of an existing state to secede from an existing state. Northern Va seceding from Richmond cannot happen unless the U.S. Consitution is ammended to allow it.

The only way would be by an insurrection, which would probably not get very far because the powers that be at the state and federal level would crush that in a heartbeat.

Posted by: not possible | March 4, 2008 12:41 PM

The elections last fall were pretty obviously about urban/suburban Virginia asserting itself by replacing R's with D's. If the R's continue to stand in the way of stuff like the roads and bridges and trains we need to get to and from work, look for R clowns like Bob Marshall to be turfed out as well. Then he can crusade all he wants.

Posted by: novamatt | March 4, 2008 1:35 PM

Also, if the rest of Virginia does continue to stand in our way, it shouldn't require a constitutional amendment for Northern Virginia to leave the commonwealth for Maryland. I'm sure the Congress would have to approve it, but I can remember a few little boundary adjustments between states in recent years. Only the scale would be different.

Posted by: novamatt | March 4, 2008 1:41 PM

To Tom desalba,

Increasing speed limits won't do anything. If anything, it would make congestion worse. One major cause of delays and reductions in roadway capacity are vehicles traveling at widely disparate speeds. Another is excessive speed, as going faster requires larger following distances - and when accidents do happen, they are much more catastrophic (and I'm only speaking in terms of causing delays, nevermind the whole safety angle).

Think of an hourglass. Each grain of sand wants to go as fast as it can (free falling thanks to gravity), but they can't because there isn't enough space in supply to let them all through. Increasing the speed limit won't do a thing if you're stuck in traffic.

Furthermore, this is only looking at auto-centric transportation. The real focus needs to be on moving people and goods, rather than simply moving cars.

Posted by: Alex B. | March 4, 2008 1:52 PM

We do not need more roads, just less building. Virginia is tired of being overtaxed and the politicans wasting all our money. We already have plenty of roads. Bad drivers cause accidents which cause congestion, plan and simple. Also, get rid of the stupid HOV requirements!

Posted by: Tax Payer | March 4, 2008 1:53 PM

Who here thinks Maryland will do any better if Nova seceded and joined MD, as someone suggested above?

Posted by: dkf747 | March 4, 2008 8:52 PM

The focus of our transportation problem should be the Governor's and General Assembly's priorities. We have enjoyed a booming economy, which increased tax revenues to record levels, and two massive tax increases this decade, so lack of tax money is not the issue. Undisciplined spending has accelerated to consume all that tax money. Additionally, increasing taxes during an economic downturn would only hurt our economy.

The "leaders" in Richmond have been and continue to be focused on creating new programs to pay off special interests rather than properly funding the basic obligations of the state. One example: Look at Governor Kaine's insistence on expanding the pre-kindergarten program. It already includes the truly needy, so now Kaine wants to expand it into the lower middle class. He is on record admitting that his over-all goal is to create a universal pre-K program. Do our schools have the infrastructure to house all these pre-K students? No! Though to fund his expanded program, Kaine cut state funding for school construction, pushing that off onto local governments. These proposals by the Governor only makes sense if you look at what special interest will benefit the most from Kaine's effort. The Virginia Teacher's Association, proud contributors, almost exclusively, to State and local Democrats!

We don't have an education crisis, but we do have a transportation crisis that has been building for years as a result of Democrats and Republicans refusing to use the State General Fund to pay for our desperately needed roads. The General Assembly will need to show courage and reprioritize the budget they are currently working on. Building a modern road network is one of the primary functions of the State government. It should be funded accordingly by the state, not local, government.

Luxuries, such as the proposed land purchases intended to prevent development and preserve open spaces, while esthetically pleasing, are not necessities and should be cut from the budget. All the other "nice to have" programs and budget items should be cut, essential programs studied to find cost-savings, and the resulting savings should be spent reducing congestion in Northern Virginia and the Hampton area. Thus far, our leaders, with few exceptions remain devoted to increased spending rather than spending within our means. This must stop, and they have to realistically address the state's pitiful road system.

Posted by: Old Virginian | March 4, 2008 10:47 PM

Isn't it funny how politicians waste your money then complain when an "emergency" comes up. I don't want to pay for the crooked mistakes of past politicians.

Posted by: Reality | March 5, 2008 8:06 AM

What is with all of these politicians? So what that the gas tax hasn't been raised since 1986, that's beside the point. Lots of other taxes, "fees" tolls, and other means extracting money from taxpayers have been raised since 1986. Besides, we had traffic problems in 1986 that were never addressed by the state despite raising our taxes. Fairfax County taxpayers like me had to foot the bill for the Fairfax County Parkway, a road that had been on the state's planning books for years that the politicians in Richmond refused to fund. The more Northern Virginians pay for roads in Northern Virginia, the less inclined the general assembly is to pay for state roads up here.

To Mc2Guy: As several other posters have pointed out, redirecting/reprioritizing state spending would go a long way towards solving the transportation problem. What justification do the politicians have in "saving the general fund" from transportation demands? The politicians up here all claim that solving gridlock is a high priority, but they refuse to vote appropriations to fund more roads at budget time. And don't tell me about tolls- Driving to Leesburg from Centreville costs a fortune, in cost per mile tolls charged by the Greenway, with more toll increases to come! The roads of Virginia support the economy of Virginia and should be funded by ALL Virginians, not just NoVa residents.

Posted by: OverTaxed | March 5, 2008 7:58 PM

Marc refers to Bob Marshall as a 'crusader.'

I think of him as another c-word. He's a cancer. The sooner he is excised from power, the better it will be for NoVa and RoVa.

Posted by: Bob Marshall fan | March 6, 2008 12:17 AM

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